Brief Historical Survey of Holy Communion in the Western Church

Second and third centuries

  • By end 1st cent., Lord’s Supper known as Eucharist
  • Only baptized could take Eucharist
  • By 215 AD, already had prayer for Holy Spirit to change the bread and wine to body and blood of Christ; Eucharist seen as sacrifice


  • From 4th cent. interest grew in question of when Christ became present in Eucharist
  • ‘Moment of consecration’ came to be seen as the time when priest repeated ‘This is my body’
  • So heart of service was reduced to a few words that worked mystic change
  • By 9th cent. question of how Christ was present in elements; answered in terms of miraculous
  • Outward appearance unchanged but original substance of bread changed to body of Christ
  • Radbertus (818) said changed into literal body born of Mary
  • Ratramnus opposed saying this confuses sign with thing signified, and it replaces faith with gross materialism
  • Schoolmen, using Aristotle, spoke of substance which is reality, and accidents which are characteristics perceived by senses
  • So when bread is consecrated, the underlying reality (substance) is changed into the body of Christ, even though it stays bread (accidents)
  • The substance of anything cannot be perceived by senses, only grasped by intellect
  • Though disputed, the idea was dogmatized by 4th Lateran Council (1215) and called Transubstantiation
  • Then communion became ‘one kind’ i.e. bread only for laity; only priest allowed to take both kinds
  • Now becomes adoration of host, rather than communion


  • Luther’s initial concern was with justification by faith, not with worship reform
  • Accepted sacraments were a means of grace
  • Objected to mass as a propitiatory sacrifice
  • No merit could be obtained by performing a mass
  • 1523 he revised mass – retained vestments and use of Latin
  • Retained elevation of bread – so that worshippers could participate, at least by looking
  • Stressed communion with participation in both kinds
  • 1525 he issued his German Mass – a folk mass to educate unlearned
  • Rejected transubstantiation but stressed Christ’s ubiquity – Christ is truly present in his full nature in the Eucharist
  • This was the heart of the matter for Luther
  • As he was influenced by the philosophy of his day, he asked ‘how is Christ present?’
  • Said that presence can be in 3 ways
    1. something occupies or vacates space e.g. a ball in water
    2. something penetrates space e.g. light or heat in water
    3. something fills all spaces but contained by none i.e. God
  • Jesus is present in sacrament in all 3 ways – but elements not changed
  • He is fully present in the bread but the bread is still bread – he is ‘in, with and under’ the bread….
  • ….Elements have not become Christ’s body and blood, his body and blood have been added to elements
  • ….Thus he insisted on manducation – not merely spiritual reception but a real taking of Christ into our body – we eat himNot clear on benefits of sacrament….
  • ….On one hand he says when we partake of sacrament we obtain forgiveness of sin and confirmation of faith
  • On the other, he says the benefit is due, not to the sacrament but reception of the word by faith
  • However he did regard Lord’s Supper as a sacrament, and by partaking we receive spiritual benefit we otherwise wouldn’t have


  • Lord’s Supper a visual aid; memorial that spoke of Christ’s grace and forgiveness
  • Rejected ‘ubiquity’ – said Christ present at the meal but not in it
  • Strong emphasis on role of sacrament in bringing to mind the death of Christ and its efficacy on believer’s behalf
  • Thus only a commemoration of Christ’s death
  • Had Lord’s Supper celebrated 4 times a year
  • Preaching had dominant place in weekly services
  • Ordinances mean nothing without faith
  • Later moved to a more spiritual presence in reaction to Anabaptists
  • Christ’s present body not eaten naturally but spiritually, i.e. equivalent to trusting with heart and soul upon the mercy and goodness of God
  • It is as powerful as meditating on the truths of the gospel


  • Sacraments a means of grace – rejected ‘ubiquity’
  • Attitude of participant primary if Eucharist to be properly received
  • Christ is in heaven in his resurrected body
  • Body of Christ cannot be ‘under’ the elements
  • Therefore Holy Spirit, like rays of the sun, necessary for communion of Christ’s flesh and blood
  • As we take elements we should lift hearts and minds to where Jesus is, in heaven; we are thus carried to heaven
  • Word and sacrament inseparably linked – sacrament must be accompanied by preaching to explain it
  • Word makes Lord’s Supper efficacious

Catholic Church

  • Council of Trent (1545-1563) responded to Reformers by affirming with anathemas, role of hierarchical priesthood, Mass as a propitiatory sacrifice, and transubstantiation


  • Schillebeekx – piece of cloth only decorative until invested with value by calling it a flag